Just to say, I actually never liked the band ‘The Smiths’. If you care about ‘The Smiths’, don’t bother reading this blog entry.
Instead, the smiths I want to talk about are the archetypal medieval ones; Reginn and Weland. Both appear in stories that are deeply set in Germanic mythology and both are plausibly interpreted as appearing in tenth-century stone sculpture from northern Britain.
As part of the Past in its Place project I am conducting a re-evaluation of the Wayland’s Smithy place-name and its connection to a Neolithic chambered tomb, situated on the Berkshire Ridgeway in what is now Oxfordshire. I have discussed this here. In order to do this, I am also re-appraising the Weland legend and the wider significance of legendary smiths and their material and spatial manifestations in the Anglo-Saxon world of the seventh to eleventh centuries AD.
The story of Weland is one of retributive sexual and murderous violence, not one about a famed smith who made precious things. This is the basis of my rethinking of the material dimensions of the story. This inevitably involves the Reginn story too, where this smith is the foster-father of Sigurd and who is killed by the blade (Gram) of his own making by his foster-son. Here again, revenge and violence are the narrative, the smithing is catalyst for the story, not its core.
So at the recent RMMC conference, I decided to present my preliminary ideas on the power of the smith and the smithy, but also particularly the cyborgian relationship between the smith and his tools as key to the retributive narratives and their sexual, technological, murderous and animistic dimensions. For me, the power of the smith’s assemblage, and the smith’s products (treasures and weapons), as well as the human bodies he defiled and transformed into ‘gifts’, are key to the reinterpretation of the significance of scenes found on tenth-century stone sculpture, including the Weland in his flying machine scene from Leeds Museum and Leeds Minster, as discussed here and here. For each smith, I presented some new views on some familiar stones.
For the Leeds minster and museum scenes, I focused on critiquing the interpretation of the scene as Weland’s escape from his smithy, instead I suggested it focused on his transformative and violent power within his smithy.
I also suggested that the Reginn scene at Halton, Lancs., might be provided with a new interpretation. I suggested that the scene might reflect an envisioned future that Sigurd foresees after sucking his thumb and ingesting the dragon heart’s juices (as depicted in the scene above). If so, then the body at the top right of the scene might not Reginn killed by Sigurd, but Sigurd killed by Reginn. The scene is about the latent murderous violence of the legendary smith prior to him receiving a taste of his own medicine, killed by Gram the sword he fashions for Sigurd to kill Fafnir the dragon.
However, reinterpreting specific sculptural scenes was not my main point. The principal aim was to bring the tools depicted, and the binding, biting and grasping of bodies and things as key to the narratives and significance as smiths as feared cyborgs: part man, part machine. This concept is not transhistorical, it is honed to explain the specific artistic depiction and archaeological evidence for selected legendary and real-world high-status artisans in the early medieval world. In this specific context, I suggest that smith’s imagined and ideologically constituted identity was regarded as distributed between tools, treasures, his smithy and the male and female bodies he inflicts different kinds of violence upon.
I look forward to writing this up as a research paper in due course. Still, for the moment, I hope this serves to whet your appetite for the cyborg smith.